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This Day in Labor History: June 25, 1914

[ 9 ] June 25, 2016 |


This is a guest post by Jacob Remes, who is clinical assistant professor at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. His book, Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era, is available from the University of Illinois Press. He tweets at @jacremes.

Charles Lee worked at a patent leather factory in the Blubber Hollow neighborhood of Salem, Massachusetts. It was unpleasant work in a rickety building. Workers like Lee dissolved flammable scrap celluloid film in flammable amyl acetate and alcohol, painted it on leather, added another layer of wood alcohol, and then steam heated it.

A hundred and two years ago today, on the afternoon of June 25, 1914, the inevitable came: a fire broke out. Charles Lee was the worker standing closest to the fire’s origin, and he broke both his legs jumping out of a window to escape the flames. Half an hour later, 300 workers had been forced to flee their factories. By evening, the fire had consumed 50 factories across the city, including, most devastatingly, Salem’s largest employer, a sheet factory called Pequot Mills. More than 18,000 people were left homeless or jobless.

Every disaster is a workplace disaster for someone. Sometimes, as for Charles Lee, the disaster is part of work. Other times, as for Pequot Mills employees, a disaster destroys opportunity for work. For others, including the 87 firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2015, it is disaster itself that is the worksite. Workers have long responded to workplace disasters by coming together with their coworkers and neighbors to think about–and fight over–the conditions of their labor.

Changes in illumination, heating, firefighting, and transportation technologies–together with organizing and government regulation–led to a gradual decline in the sort of fires that once regularly destroyed large swaths of cities. In 1918, a Canadian government researcher counted 290 urban conflagrations in the United States and Canada between 1815 and 1915, more than half of the global total. Salem’s was among the last.

But industrial risk was not vanquished. In the United States in 2014, the last year for which data were available, about 13 people a day were killed at work, whether in small accidents or big disasters. This risk–of lives lost, of bodies mangled, of property and livelihoods diminished–is never evenly distributed (as Erik, among others, has reminded us). Who bears the bodily risk of industrialism is a political choice we all make. Most of the time, workers die in ones or twos, invisible except to their families, coworkers, and friends. Disasters–like when 29 coal miners died in Upper Big Branch, West Virginia, in 2013, or when, in the same year, 1,100 garment workers died in a factory collapse at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh–are the times we see our choices and have an opportunity to correct them.

After the Salem fire, as after disasters today, people debated how to organize society and its risk in their neighborhoods and churches, in town meetings and voting booths. Six months after fire, Salemites recalled their mayor in the first modern recall in New England. Catholic laypeople argued with priests and the archbishop about how their parish should be rebuilt. Neighbors argued about whether a new building code, designed to make the city less flammable, was worth the cost.

Most of all, they fought for power in their workplaces. Pequot Mills was rebuilt and reopened a year and a half after the fire, in 1916. Soon, workers began to experiment with new ways of organizing and building power across skill, gender, and ethnicity. At a time when in most Massachusetts textile mills only the most skilled workers, mostly men, were welcomed into unions, workers at Pequot Mills organized a union that included women, unskilled workers, and French Canadians, whom many labor leaders at the time thought were unorganizable.

Workers at Pequot Mills fought for, and won, higher pay, but more importantly they wanted a say in how the factory would be run. They won seniority rights, a grievance system, and defined job categories and so limited management’s arbitrary ability to hire, fire, promote, and discipline workers. By the late 1920s, the union had taken charge of the company’s sales and marketing departments, and it controlled a joint labor-management committee that sought to increase productivity through scientific management. Workers’ willingness to sacrifice some material gains for control over how the factory would run got press attention as a national model.

It did not last. While at first union power meant democratic control of the workplace by workers, within a few years the business manager, not the workers themselves, controlled the process. “I didn’t bother to report,” he told visiting researchers, “because they are a bunch of ignorant Canucks and Polacks who wouldn’t understand anyway.”

After a few years of growing union autocracy, workers took the skills they had honed in the aftermath of the fire and rebelled against their own leaders. Led by women, who were especially hurt by the business manager, they rebelled and struck in 1933 and again in 1935 to found a new, more democratic union. A generation after the fire, workers were still debating with each other, with management, and with their neighbors how to organize work.

In our own era of workplace disasters, we too can debate how labor should be organized. Disasters offer opportunities for solidarity in the workplace, in the community, and up and down the supply chain. They are times when the choices society makes about whose lives are more or less valuable become visible, and they are times we can make different choices.

One example was the prosecution of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for his role creating the Upper Big Branch disaster. (He was sentenced to a mere year in prison.) So too was the Rana Plaza factory collapse. The horror of that disaster forced the North American companies that had subcontracted work to those factories to impose greater–though still inadequate–safety standards. More importantly, it spurred greater garment worker organizing, so that in Dhaka, as in Salem, workers can build power and set their own standards.

This post also encourages readers to donate to the Rosenberg Fund, supporting the children of targeted activists. You can read more about the Rosenberg fund here.

This is the 182nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.


Non-Compete Clauses

[ 96 ] June 23, 2016 |


It’s completely ridiculous that it took the New York attorney general’s office to force this to happen, but Jimmy John’s is finally ending its practice of making its employees sign non-compete clauses so they can’t take the valuable skills they learned and get a job at Subway.

The Illinois-based sandwich chain has agreed to stop including noncompete agreements in its hiring documents, a practice that was deemed “unlawful” by the New York attorney general’s office.

The announcement follows an investigation by that office into Jimmy John’s use of noncompete agreements with franchisees in New York, which began in December 2014. The agreements had barred departing employees from taking jobs with competitors of Jimmy John’s for two years after leaving the company and from working within two miles of a Jimmy John’s store that made more than 10 percent of its revenue from sandwiches.

“Noncompete agreements for low-wage workers are unconscionable,” Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, said in a statement. “They limit mobility and opportunity for vulnerable workers and bully them into staying with the threat of being sued. Companies should stop using these agreements for minimum wage employees.”

It seems that this agreement only covers its New York stores, although Illinois is going after it now, so maybe that will finally stop the practice entirely.

This Day in Labor History: June 22, 1896

[ 11 ] June 22, 2016 |


On June 22, 1896, mine owners in Leadville, Colorado agreed to lock out their unionized miners, presenting a united front against unionism. This action would spur one of the largest battles between unions and employers in the 1890s, one that typically would be ended by the Colorado militia’s use as a private army of the employers.

Silver was discovered in Leadville in the 1870s, eventually making it one of the nation’s leading mining towns. In its first years, Leadville mines were generally unconsolidated, owned by the people who staked the claim. This did not change until the early 1890s, when capitalists began investing in the silver mines. Taking control of the city, the culture of mining in Leadville changed almost overnight. The Panic of 1893, the worst economic depression in the nation’s history to that time, shook the silver industry. Prices plummeted. Mine owners slashed wages from $3 a day to $2.50. By 1896, about one-third of the miners were still only earning that reduced rate. Those were poverty wages for a very dangerous job.

Miners organized with the Western Federation of Miners. The WFM, formed out of the bitter 1892 Coeur d’Alene strike, sought the industrial organization of hard rock miners. Local 33, also known as Cloud City Miners Union, formed in Leadville. From its formation in 1893, the WFM had demanded the 8-hour day. Yet in Leadville, many miners were working 12-hour days. The CCMU, as its first demand, wanted the restoration of the $3 day for all miners at a time when the mine owners were building luxury homes for themselves, even if the economy had not fully recovered by 1896. They presented this demand to the mine owners on May 26, 1896. All the owners rejected the demand. On June 19, the WFM tried again. Again, the owners rejected it. That night, the union decided that all workers making $2.50 should strike. Several mines shut down the next day when their workforce walked off the job.

The mine owners responded by seeking to crush the WFM in Leadville entirely. On June 22, it responded to the strike by locking out all miners. The owners quickly imported strikebreakers to run their mines. They also hired Pinkertons and Thiel agents to infiltrate the union and spy on the strikers. Both sides refused to compromise with the other. The union was unaware of how closely the mine owners were working together and believed if they could just get one to cave, the others would follow. One minority owner of a mine did cave and reopened with a higher wage. When his partners took him to court, the court ruled it had to pay the $3 wage. So when the state deputy labor commissioner offered to arbitrate the case, the union refused, thinking victory was right around the corner. The WFM’s aggressive action disturbed the American Federation of Labor. The AFL did not call other unions out in support, which often happened in strikes of this time, even if the supportive unions might settle themselves for small raises. The Leadville WFM local was largely on its own, although other WFM locals did contribute financial help.

On August 13, the owners tried to cut a deal, saying they would raise the wage to $3 when the price of silver rose to 75 cents an ounce. It was not at that time 75 cents. But given that the majority of the striking miners were making the $3 wage already, there was some effort to end the strike. However, the WFM leadership wanted to hold out for victory. Before you think such demands were unrealistic or that the union should have compromised, understand that in 1894, the WFM had won probably the single greatest union victory of the decade in the Cripple Creek strike. Believing the union’s credibility was at stake and hoping to organize throughout the West, another victory at Leadville would have really solidified the union’s position and power.

Some of the mines began to build fortifications around them, preparing to reopen and crush the strike with force if necessary. This led the WFM to take the offensive. On September 21, fifty armed miners attacked the Coronado and Emmett mines. They set the Coronado mine on fire by dropping dynamite into it, causing $50,000 worth of damage. A gun battle ensued with the twenty armed strikebreakers at the mines. Four union members were killed. In response, Colorado governor Albert McIntire, who had previously refused mine owners’ requests to use the state militia as a private police force, promptly changed his mind. The mines reopened under military guard. Eugene Debs came to Leadville to try and negotiate a solution, but could not. Low-level violence continued through the winter. Strikebreakers surrounded one striker outside his house and murdered him while a policeman shot another. Given that the Leadville police chief hated the strikers, it’s surprising there were not more deaths. The WFM caved on March 9, 1897 after half the workers had already given up and returned to work. Those workers not on the blacklist went back under the old wage system.

The Leadville experience left the WFM deeply bitter. The union disaffiliated with the AFL after the federation refused to support it. The Leadville strike’s failure contributed significantly to that union’s radical phase that included its central role in forming the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, with WFM leader Big Bill Haywood eventually leading the new union. And while the WFM largely withdrew from the IWW after 1908 as more moderate leadership took over in the miners’ union, it retained it’s radical edge. The WFM eventually turned into the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers in 1916. More popularly known as Mine, Mill, it retained its radical edge and was one of the unions evicted from the CIO for its communist leadership in the late 1940s. It also led the famous Salt of the Earth strike in southern New Mexico.

Today, Leadville is one of the most fascinating and kind of scary places in the nation, with the mining legacy all over the landscape and the culture.

This is the 181st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Stein’s History

[ 14 ] June 21, 2016 |


Judith Stein is one of the finest historians working today. Her book, Pivotal Decade, is a superb discussion of the 1970s and the economic shift away from manufacturing to financialization. Critical work. You should read it.

Stein has a long interview with Jacobin that is also worth your time. I don’t agree with her on every point–she does underplay the central role of racism in southern politics to make the case that there were alternatives for the region, both during the Populist years and after the civil rights movement. And some of the questions are a bit eyerolling as they make cheap attempts to connect the “Democratic Party elites” of the 1890s killing Populists in the South and “Democratic Party elites” today, as if they were remotely the same people. But as a whole, this is good stuff. One excerpt:

First of all, both the labor movement and the Civil Rights Movement were diverse. But I can make some generalizations. Let’s start with the AFL-CIO and its leader, George Meany.

Unlike Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, Meany did not support the March on Washington in 1963. Nevertheless, he was the muscle behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including the very important Title 7, banning employment discrimination.

The Civil Rights Movement, and blacks in general, did not have much weight in Congress, so labor played a crucial role in getting legislation passed. And where labor was weak, the churches stepped in.

One of the reasons that Meany was so insistent on Title 7 was that the law had evolved so that unions, but not employers, were liable for employment discrimination. Making employment discrimination illegal would place the blame on employers, whom labor leaders believed were the cause of discrimination.

In addition, it wasn’t just Reuther who gave money to Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963, the United Steelworkers in Birmingham gave $40,000 so that jailed demonstrators could be released. Claude Ramsay, head of the Mississippi AFL-CIO, worked very closely with Medgar Evers, the main civil rights leader in the state.

Having said that, it is also true that the hurricane of racism that enveloped the South in the late 1950s and early 1960s included many unionized white workers. This period halted some of the postwar progress that had been made and replaced the populists, who stressed economic issues, with the racists in state and local government.

Nonetheless, most union leaders in the South tried the best they could to promote black rights because they saw black voting as crucial to union success, as well as to their own liberalism.

There is no doubt that there were conflicts, generally over methods and the speed of black advancement. The conflicts escalated when the number of jobs was falling.

And some unions were better than others. The craft unions were less willing to change than the CIO industrial unions, which especially in the North had eliminated many of the discriminations of the pre-union era.

Even so, the unionized construction companies [strongholds of craft unionism] had better records on training blacks for skilled work than the nonunionized companies.

Bernie and Labor

[ 119 ] June 20, 2016 |

Sanders picketline_1

One more postmortem of the 2016 primary. Joe Burns writes in Jacobin that what labor needs to learn from the Sanders campaign is to reintegrate radicalism into its thinking. A lot of it is just revisiting the anti-communist purges of the CIO and decrying the lack of radicalism in the labor movement, underpinned with anger that the unions backed Hillary Clinton instead of Bernie Sanders.

Reintroducing class struggle into trade unionism also necessitates having a serious discussion about the state of labor’s reform-minded wing. Supportive of diffuse activism, this broad coalition includes true reformers and those who, in the past, would have been considered collaborationist hacks.

Many in labor embrace what could be called “labor pragmatism” — initiatives that try to fight smart within the existing system, like the inside strategy, the corporate campaign, and the one-day strike.

All of these are sensible strategies for workers forced to struggle within an unjust framework of labor control. But because they do not challenge the underlying paradigm, they cannot revive the labor movement.

Many in labor’s progressive wing favor the phrase “social movement unionism” to describe a form of unionism that emphasizes community ties and rejects narrow unionism. This is particularly true in public-sector unions, which live or die based on public support.

Social movement unionism is a broad concept that can encompass a wide range of activities, from the class-struggle approach of the Chicago Teachers Union to staff-driven models more akin to business unionism.

It’s time to move beyond these concepts and toward a more Sanders-inspired vision of labor organizing, which puts our fight in the context of the struggle between the 1 percent and the rest of the population.

Class-struggle unionism incorporates the broad demands of social movement unionism into a workplace-centered struggle against management.

So what would a “Sanders-inspired vision of labor organizing” really look like?

Reestablishing effective trade unionism requires a number of concrete actions. We must develop forms of solidarity that move beyond just fighting a single employer and instead confront capital as a class. We must constrain capital’s mobility and cultivate solidarity across borders.

We must disregard the “property rights” of employers and be willing to flout labor law itself. We must resist the constant pressure to collaborate rather than fight. Fundamentally, we must put workers and struggle back at the center of trade unionism.

None of this is possible in a labor movement that spurns socialist ideas.

Here is the basic problem: over the last eighty years, an aggressive capitalist order has reshaped trade unionism. Collective bargaining is now confined to individual corporations, so the union is captive to each employer’s business decisions.

The profits extracted from workplaces flow largely to capitalists, and workers have no say over the distribution of the wealth they create.

While a web of rules created by the NLRB and the courts have granted this status quo legal legitimacy, today’s labor policies are merely capital’s worldview imposed on the labor movement.

Without a socialist analysis, economic shifts look like forces of nature rather than human creations. Issues like capital flight, subcontracting, or corporate globalization are taken as givens, impossible for any labor movement to resist.

A socialist trade unionism, on the other hand, would demand that capital be bent to labor’s needs.

Past moments in the labor movement — like the AFL’s closed-shop era, when unions controlled hiring decisions and worker education, or the CIO’s solidarity unionism, which brought hundreds of enterprises under the same master agreements and used industry-wide strikes to halt production — remind us that this is possible.

And so has Sanders’s run. In a refreshing challenge to the neoliberal views of Hillary Clinton (and much of the labor establishment that backs her), Sanders has promised to direct societal resources away from the banks to rebuild inner cities, create jobs, and provide free college education.

Applying his vision to trade unionism means rejecting the idea that capital has an inherent right to do what it wishes to our jobs and our communities.

OK, I guess. But this feels a lot more like sloganeering than really analyzing the critical issues with the labor movement. It also papers over a lot of history–the AFL unions that controlled hiring halls used them to exclude black workers, for instance. Flouting labor law is fine, but sometimes can lead to the president crushing your entire union and setting the entire labor movement back. I obviously agree that constraining capital mobility is absolutely central for the ability of the working class to survive. I wrote a book about that very topic. And a socialist analysis does provide some ways forward on these topics. On the other hand, so does our current legal system, which is very much not socialist and not used to socialist ends, but could be used to accomplish some of these policy goals. A labor movement committed to socialism might be useful, but then the labor movement is already committed to a lot of socialist policies if they could be enacted, although there’s no question that unions will often make short-term decisions that undermine the long-term interests of the working class, such as working for minimum wage carve-outs for its own members.

Moreover, I just don’t really see what Bernie Sanders had to do with an entirely new radical approach. Is he calling for the illegal occupation of corporate property? I just feel that there’s a whole lot of projection on the left to Sanders, who see in him what they want to see instead of what he actually is–a good left-liberal on most policy issues with a talent for a certain kind of rhetoric that appeals to 60s radicals and their descendants. And that’s fine I guess, but I’m still struggling to see how Bernie Sanders is that far to the left of Hillary Clinton on most policy issues. He’s a bit to the left on many and the proposal for free college tuition is a good goal, even if the details really need to be spelled out. But she’s not a monster and he’s not a savior.

Finally, I need to know how this actually works on the ground if unions start occupying buildings, ignoring labor law, defy the NLRB, etc. I also need to know how to explain the very real risks involved to rank and file workers.

I guess all this means is that I’m a bad leftist for wanting policy analysis and complexity in my social movements instead of sloganeering. If we just had more solidarity, everything would be better! But those Big Labor bureaucrats sold out the working class once again by supporting Hillary over a man who has similar beliefs on many issues, just a different way of talking about them. And that’s of course a lot of what this whole article is about–the endless battle within the labor movement between pragmatism and radicalism that radicals almost never win because they struggle to bring the rank and file of the unions around to these vague ideas of action and solidarity.

Unfree Labor in American Seafood

[ 17 ] June 18, 2016 |


Usually when I talk about unfree labor, it’s overseas in supply chains producing products for western markets. But the U.S. has several of its own systemic versions of unfree labor–widespread use of prison labor, sweatshops in Los Angeles, etc. Another is in the seafood industry where suppliers use guestworkers to provide your frozen shrimp. But this is not free labor, not with the guestworkers having no recourse.

But labor abuse in the seafood sector isn’t a problem confined to Asia. A report published Wednesday by the labor group the National Guestworker Alliance suggests that some US seafood workers also experience abusive conditions. The report focuses on the experiences of undocumented and H2-B visa guestworkers shucking, peeling, and boiling shrimp and crawfish at seafood processing plants in New Bedford, Mass. and along the Louisiana Gulf Coast. Around 69 percent of shrimp produced in the US comes from the Gulf Coast.

“Stealing wages is standard business practice. The financial incentive to underpay guestworkers is far greater than the risk of getting caught.”

According to the NGA report, the US seafood industry has relied heavily on H2-B guestworkers and undocumented immigrants to drive down labor costs to stay price competitive with international producers. A 2009 survey in New Bedford found that nearly 75 percent of the workers in its seafood processing industry were undocumented immigrants. The US Department of Labor certified over 5,700 H2-B visas for seafood related positions in 2014, a marked 15 percent increase over 2013. Because employers grant H2-B visas, those on the receiving end are particularly vulnerable. Due to threats of retaliation by employers—including firing, which can result in deportation—guestworkers are often hesitant to report mistreatment. “Hours were long, wages were bad, housing was terrible—but we were all afraid that if we spoke up, we would lose our jobs, our housing, and our ability to ever come back to the US to work,” longtime H-2B guestworker Olivia Guzman Garfias told the NGA.

Here are some more striking details from the NGA’s report:

In housing provided by processing companies in both the Louisiana Gulf and New Bedford, Mass., workers reported living with up to 20 people per trailer, without access to proper sanitation and sometimes with strict curfews.

Of the 126 seafood workers surveyed in New Bedford, 25 percent reported having been injured on the job. The majority of workers reported having to purchase their own safety equipment.

44 percent reported not being paid for overtime work.

At times, piece rates for pounds of shrimp prorated to levels well below minimum wage, as low as $2 per hour, and employers sometimes failed to pay promised rates. According to NGA Organizing Director Jacob Horwitz: “Stealing wages is standard business practice. The financial incentive to underpay guestworkers is far greater than the risk of getting caught.”

Female workers experienced sexual harassment and verbal abuse in the workplace as well as in company-provided housing. Some women spoke of unwanted sexual advances by company brass, and of being fired for rebuffing such advances.

Once again, if you are eating frozen seafood, you are eating a product made by unfree labor. Unfortunately, while we can pressure Walmart and other stores from using these suppliers, they lack the legal obligation to take responsibility for their supply chains. Until we can go after the corporate buyers of this seafood, this sort of exploitation will continue. And this is yet more evidence that guestworker programs simply do not work, at least in low-wage jobs, and there should be no place for them in whatever immigration reform bill eventually passes Congress.

How Netflix Uses Independent Contractor Classifications to Avoid Paying Minimum Wage

[ 54 ] June 18, 2016 |


This should obviously be a violation of federal law. But of course the vile independent contractor employment status exists to shield employers from liability, responsibility, and of course, not having to give up their 5th ivory-covered backscratcher.

Getting paid to watch movies might seem like a pretty sweet gig, but two people who worked for Netflix are now suing the streaming-media giant, claiming that the company misclassified them as contractors rather than employees so it wouldn’t have to pay them time-and-a-half for the long workweeks they incurred.

The two workers, who are aiming for class-action status, were part of “Project Beetlejuice,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. These people (Netflix doesn’t say how many it works with) get paid $10 a pop to watch movies and pick out the best stills and video clips for Netflix to use.

The issue, of course, is that a movie can run two or three hours in length, which — if you do the math — means these film buffs aren’t making a lot per hour for their services. Netflix had classified them as independent contractors, but the litigation contends that they were treated more like employees, but without the benefits of regular employment. “They’re also asking for overtime, paid vacation, and holidays, health insurance, and a 401(k) plan,” Business Insider said.

$10 a pop if the the movie is 2 hours long is all of $5 an hour. Say what you will, but watching movies for a company is absolutely work and those workers need legal compensation, not to even mention fair compensation. Just another day in the New Gilded Age.

Model Employer

[ 11 ] June 16, 2016 |


I can see why some people are flouncing away from the Democratic Party again because both parties are the same amiright and so only real revolution will come from voting for Jill Stein, or even better, not voting at all so that your precious bodily fluids purity will be retained. After all, we all know the Democratic Party hates working people, right?

Rich Yeselson hopes the Democratic platform is going to approve of an executive order for a “model employer” clause.

The union-funded organization Good Jobs Nation developed the proposal, which has two key planks:

Preference in federal contracts and some subsidies to “model employers” who pay at least $15 per hour and meet a standard package of benefits, including health insurance and sick leave, and provide stable, full-time hours.

Contractors would have to affirm, rather than impede, the right of their employees to unionize in return for a no-strike or “labor peace” pledge by the employees.

The liberal think tank Demos calculated in 2013 that there are at least 2 million low-wage workers earning less than $12 an hour who work for companies that benefit from federal contracts.

These workers range from home health care aides whose jobs derive from Medicare and Medicaid to janitors in the federal buildings, such as the US Capitol. The hope is that the federal government would use its leverage to promote union organizing and construct a model of labor management relations for the rest of the private sector. The basic idea has gathered considerable steam at the municipal level, where 120 localities have already issued similar orders — but the federal government’s reach is clearly much further.

Yeselson goes on to accurately summarize the relationship between unions and politics in the United States, correctly stating that unions have always had to have political support in order to win anything substantial (the leftist argument that “unions should give up the political game and just organize”–which you will even hear labor historians make at scholarly labor conferences– drives me up the wall).

But while the economic legacy of wartime pro-union efforts persisted for decades, the politics that shaped those policies collapsed almost immediately due to the United States’ uniquely union-hostile business community. Unions themselves, fearful of government intrusion, have often preferred a voluntary relationship between labor and management. But in the United States labor must, to some extent, rely upon the state to ensure the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain.

As the historian Nelson Lichtenstein writes, “In every other capitalist nation, a strong bureaucratic state either preceded or simultaneously emerged with the multi-division firm, but this pattern was reversed in the United States.”

In other words, in America, big business — complete with a “desperate sense of individual autonomy” among owners and managers — precedes the existence of big government, leading those owners and managers to fiercely resist unionization during the New Deal era and afterward.

Moreover, the fragmentation of the business sector across a heterogeneous, continental-size nation favored decentralized economic development rather than the cooperative triad of business, labor, and government that emerged in much of Western Europe. The more disaggregated capitalist production was in the United States, the more essential it was for each firm to sustain flexible labor costs and to fight union efforts to standardize those costs across industries.

Consequently, there is absolutely no consensus in the United States in favor of the shared legitimacy of business and unions. One result is that federal labor policy oscillates wildly depending on which party controls appointments to the NLRB.

Given these structural and historical circumstances, only a national political party sympathetic to unions is able to give them a fighting chance. Given their tenuous, always contested position in the American political economy, absent the active support of the federal government for unions, they wither. And when unions wither, wage inequality rises, and civil society is impoverished as well.

And really, this goes back to the late 19th century, when American employers took a much harder line against unions than employers in Britain and France.

That’s why it makes sense for union-centered policies developed within Democratic Party politics to be a major source of the platform and further executive actions, even if legislation might not be possible. I know Hillary Clinton is history’s greatest monster and all and maybe isn’t AUTHENTIC in her beliefs about workers, but she has moved to the left significantly and likely will continue to do so as long as people are protesting in the streets for a $15 minimum wage, free college tuition, and the many other things this nation needs to fight inequality.

But hey, my feelings about authenticity and my anger toward Debbie Wasserman Schultz are more important than policies to help working Americans, so I’m voting Jill Stein and when Trump wins IT WILL TEACH THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY A LESSON THEY WON’T SOON FORGET JUST LIKE IN 2000!

Verizon Strike Postmortems

[ 8 ] June 13, 2016 |


A couple of good reads on the incredibly successful Verizon strike. Michael McCormick notes that one of the biggest victories here is the inclusion of the retail stores in the bargaining unit, pointing the way forward for further organizing.

Perhaps the biggest step forward brought about by the victory is the fact that it’s the first contract for Verizon retail workers in Everett, MA and Brooklyn, NY. These workers finally have a union and a contract in an occupation that is known for low pay and erratic scheduling. Verizon has also fiercely resisted the unionization of employees in their wireless retail locations. It is only after years of organizing that this location was able to join the CWA in 2014. As a wall between the land-line workforce and wireless workforce at Verizon erodes, workers in both divisions can build power.

The win in the working-class city of Everett was particularly sweet. Anyone driving by a Verizon store in Everett or in the greater Boston area (where this author has lived and worked) during the strike was sure to be greeted by the same sight: workers picketing enthusiastically, while the store’s parking lot remained empty of customers, who refused to cross the picket line. After decades of blue-collar work in Everett being increasingly replaced by lower-paying service sector jobs, seeing Verizon workers assert their rights to better pay and increased job security should serve as encouragement to other workers in the service sector. The shift from manufacturing to services in the U.S. economy reverberated through the residential city like most areas in the United States, and low-paying service jobs became the norm. So it was encouraging to see workers at the Verizon store there make national news for their involvement in the strike, asserting that workers in the service sector deserve the same dignity as any other occupation.

Mike Tisei, chief steward at the Everett Verizon store, said that the new contract “means a better quality of life and meaningful economic security for our families. Today [May 30th] is a great day for my family and working families along the East Coast, and it’s only possible because we stood together.” The strike clearly has concrete implications for people beyond wage increases and the minutiae of profit-sharing schemes; they feel empowered at their workplaces and are getting a fair shot at a middle class career.

And Mary Anne Trasciatti places the strike in some historical context, noting its reclaiming of the direct action of the now distant past.

The other avenue of attack was the mobile picket. First used in 1912 by Lawrence strikers, workers in those days would encircle a factory or some other place of business and try to convince strikebreakers, verbally and sometimes physically, not to go to work.

Today, a mobile picket might traverse several miles on a highway, but the goal is the same. Just with more baroque restrictions.

As Eramo explains: “When a van leaves a facility to do our work we are by law allowed to follow that vehicle, as long as we remain fifteen feet away, with no more than five guys picketing one person.”

Verizon strikers taunted, screamed, and generally attempted to make the situation as uncomfortable as possible for scabs. Eramo says the surveillance and heckling were very effective, “and kind of intimidating.”

When tempers flared, the picket turned into a contest between dueling cameras. Scabs tried to catch strikers making threats or engaging in other prohibited behaviors (which could cost them their jobs when the strike was over), and strikers recorded their own video for proof of innocence.

Wobblies knew that a strike was more likely to endure and succeed when strikers remained engaged. Picketers in Lawrence and Paterson sung their hearts out. They marched in strike parades and processed for May Day.

Led by Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca, whose flair for the dramatic is hard to exaggerate, they held public funerals (both mock and genuine) for fallen comrades.

Such tactics effectively transformed the strike into a form of political theater. In the case of Paterson, strikers actually reenacted their struggle as a pageant in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

The CWA showed a similar penchant for performance. Pennsylvania strikers staged a funeral procession for the “corporate pig” (complete with a casket) in a Verizon retail parking lot that would have had Tresca cheering.

But the most raucous actions were reserved for hotels that put up strikebreakers — strikers harbored particular disdain for scabs who were willing to travel to take their jobs. Hundreds gathered at 5 AM to ring cowbells, blow whistles, bellow, and jeer until police arrived with special response teams.

Technically a form of third-party picketing, the tactic is illegal. It was also very popular. And it proved successful. At least one Manhattan hotel kicked out strikebreakers that were staying there.

It’s hard for me to overstate how important I think this strike was. It’s rare that private sector unionism wins anything in 2016, but for direct action tactics to lead to enormous victories is a really important precedent if the labor movement will be rebuilt. Of course, the Department of Labor’s role here is also important, which is also why one hopes that the Clinton administration will build upon Obama’s labor record in the DOL.

Legal Responsibility, Not Voluntary Codes of Conduct, Is Necessary to Ensure Ethical Trade

[ 17 ] June 10, 2016 |


Last month, I spoke about Out of Sight to a class at Brown. These were, naturally enough, pretty wealthy kids. They liked the book, which was assigned to them in a class, but found one thing uncomfortable. That was the open contempt I have toward corporate behavior, seeing them as enemies of both labor standards and environmental sustainability. In their questions to me, they kept coming back to this, asking about “good corporations” or voluntary codes of conduct. I of course rejected all of this, stating that even if you have a “good” CEO, if that person leaves, the corporate culture can very easily change and that the ultimate point of corporations is to profit, not be responsible citizens. This story about the berry company Driscoll’s, which claims to have a fair trade standards and advertises that they do, is why I feel this way.

Farm workers, mostly undocumented and Indigenous, doubled their movement for a union contract this year, inspired by the winning Fight for 15 campaign but demanding more.

“It’s almost the same fight,” Ramon Torres, berry picker and director of Families United for Justice, told teleSUR. The differences, though, are important.

Since most migrant farm workers do not have U.S. citizenship, they are not protected under labor law, nor by their employees, no matter how progressive their labor policy. They also see much more cases of child labor and of wage theft.

The fruit producer is heavily backed by supermarket chains like Costco and Whole Foods, who insist that its practices comply with fair trade standards.

After the Sakuma workers brought attention to their dismal conditions — poor housing, up to 15 hours of work a day without no breaks, racial harassment — Driscoll’s responded that, “Sakuma is in compliance with our standards and is making continuous improvements in providing a forum for open dialogue and empowerment for their farmworkers.”

Because Families United for Justice is not able to register as a union under state law, Driscoll’s said there is nothing else they can do.

Still, Torres said that it proudly distributes a sticker that guarantees fair trade practices, essentially a lie that covers up continuing mistreatment of its employers.

Simply put, voluntary fair trade standards without legal requirements are utterly meaningless. That doesn’t mean they are terrible in themselves or anything. If a company wants to engage in fair trade standards and then actually does so, then good. But if nothing is forcing them to and there’s no monitoring of it by outside organizations, the chances is that it’s just the labor version of greenwashing.

This Day in Labor History: June 8, 1917

[ 7 ] June 8, 2016 |


On June 8, 1917, the Speculator Mine in Granite Mountain, near Butte, Montana, caught on fire. 168 miners died in the largest death toll in American history for a hard-rock mining disaster. This horrible event spurred a strike and union campaign in Butte that owners responded to through anti-union hysteria and organized violence, showing the sharp limits of organizing, especially in the American West, during World War I.

In the late 19th century, Butte became one of the most important mining districts in the United States, thanks to its rich copper deposits. In 1883, there were 2000 miners in Butte. By 1916, there were 14,500 miners. The mines lacked basic safety standards, as was common throughout the nation. Without mine safety laws, there was no reason for companies to ensure there workers didn’t die or to teach mine safety for them. On June 8, 1917, a crew strung an electrical cable to the rock 2400 feet below the surface. But part of it fell down. A crew descended to fix it. But as it fell, the protective sheathing around it frayed. An assistant foreman reached down to pick it up. When he did, he brushed his carbine lamp against the cable. It caught fire and exploded. It quickly spread through the mine, killing 168 workers. As sad as this was, it was also somewhat ironic, as it spread so quickly because the mine was well ventilated and because the affected cable was part of a fire suppression system the mine was implementing.

There were 410 miners working in Granite Mountain that night. 168 died. One went in to save 25 lives before he finally succumbed to the fire and poisonous gas. Montana law stated that all the cement bulkheads in the mine must have an iron door that could be opened in case of emergency for miners to escape. But Butte mine owners routinely ignored the laws, a major problem with workplace safety legislation in these years. Some miners were found with their fingers ground down to the bone as they desperately tried to claw through the cement.

Butte had a long union history by 1917. During the late nineteenth century, Butte was known as “The Gibraltar of Unionism” as the largely Irish miners organized and won stable contracts during a deeply anti-union period. But in 1903, the Anaconda Mining Company gained control of the Butte mines and began undermining union power. This could not happen overnight because the unions were fairly powerful, but by 1912, the Butte Miners Union was significantly weakened after Anaconda successfully introduced the rustling card, which gave employers power over who worked in their mines that they used to get rid of union activists. 500 union members were fired. Moreover, miners were being paid at 1878 rates even though the price of copper was over twice as high by 1914. In that year, the Industrial Workers of the World arrived in Butte and also sought to undermine the BMU. The union fell into civil war, leading to the dynamiting of the BMU mining hall. This led Anaconda to withdraw all recognition from the union. After nearly 30 years of recognition from mine owners, the Butte Miners Union was destroyed. In this case, IWW participation was utterly disastrous. Some accused the Wobblies of collaborating with the mine owners. While this is certainly not true, there’s no question that the owners took advantage of the dissension the Wobblies caused.

The mine fire also reignited the unionist sentiment in Butte. Union newspapers started publishing again and calls for higher wages and safer working conditions rallied workers. On June 11, miners at the Elm Orlu mine, owned by the notoriously corrupt William Clark, went on strike. Although many wanted to blame the strike on the IWW or German secret agents, the Montana Commissioner of Labor and Industry publicly stated the cause was the fire at the Speculator. On June 13, the miners formed the Metal Mine Workers Union to try and once again organize Butte. It wanted recognition as the workers’ bargaining agent, abolition of the rustling card, the mine owners to actually observe the state mining laws, the firing of the state mining inspector, a wage increase, and the right to free speech and assembly, which was being denied in Butte and many other western towns during World War I. Accusing the workers of being a bunch of Wobblies and determined to keep the open shop, the mine owners refused to speak to the unionists. A few days later, the city’s electricians went on strike to demand recognition of the miners and the others followed. Butte seemed to be on the verge of again becoming a union town.

Because it was World War I, the post-Speculator fire strike received national attention. The Wilson administration sent an arbitrator while American Federation of Labor representatives arrived to work toward a settlement so that the miners would get back to work to support the war effort. Unfortunately, the AFL prioritized this over the workers’ demands and wanted the workers to go back on the job before receiving recognition, which they refused to do. Meanwhile, the miner owners and their newspapers were calling for open violence against the strikes, laying the groundwork for the brutal crushing of organized labor many employers hoped they could achieve thanks to the war.

Unfortunately for the miners, labor solidarity was not strong in Butte. The other unions quickly accepted everything they asked from their own employers except recognition of the miners’ union. The miners were isolated. The owners offered the workers, but not the union, a small wage gain, weekly pay, and a slight change to the rustling system. Some miners took this deal by the end of July but most stayed out of work.

Coming to the mine soon after the disaster was the IWW organizer Frank Little. Arriving on July 18, Little wanted to turn Butte into a Wobbly stronghold. He gave public speeches in Butte telling the miners to resist the draft and that workers of the world should not kill each other for the benefit of capitalists. On August 1, a mob probably consisting of members of the Butte business elite rounded Little up and lynched him. Interestingly, Little had plenty of warning to leave town and his fellow unionists were urging him to do so, but he refused. Given that Little was already physically broken by this time and also was a true radical, even compared to other Wobblies, it’s entirely plausible that becoming a martyr was something he was prepared to accept.

On August 10, federal troops were sent to Butte to patrol the streets from Wobblies and other agitators. Montana then had a special legislative session where it basically ended free speech in the state. The mine workers finally called off the strike in December, after 90 percent of the miners had already returned to work. The strike caused by the Speculator fire would achieve nothing.

The extreme behavior of employers in Butte during World War I was part of the larger national reaction against unions during this period that this series has examined in Everett, Centralia, Blair Mountain, the arrest of Eugene Debs for violating the Espionage Act, the crushing of the Boston police strike, and no doubt additional events in the future.

Many of the details of the union organizing campaign in Butte come from Arnon Gutfeld’s 1969 article in Arizona and the West, “The Speculator Disaster in 1917: Labor Resurgence in Butte, Montana.”

This is the 180th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Can We Control Imports Based Upon Labor Standards in Production? Yes.

[ 8 ] June 6, 2016 |


There’s no good argument to be made that the United States can’t get a handle on the global exploitation of labor by placing bans on products made under certain conditions or from nations and companies that don’t open their factories to international inspectors. You can argument whether we should or the details about how such a program would work, but there’s no real argument that we can’t do it. That’s because we already do it.

Imports of the sugar substitute stevia, both extracts and derivatives, produced by PureCircle Ltd. in China will be detained at all U.S. ports of entry, after Customs and Border Protection announced June 1 that those products are made with the use of convict labor.

Customs Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said companies must examine their supply chains “to understand product sourcing and the labor used to generate their products.” He said the agency “is committed to ensuring U.S. values outweigh economic expediency and as part of its trade enforcement responsibilities, will work to ensure products made with forced labor do not cross our borders.”

Producers use the leaves of the stevia plant to produce a sugar substitute.

U.S. law requires Customs to block imports that are made in whole or part by forced labor, including convict labor, indentured labor and forced child labor.

This is a result of the recent bill closing the loophole in the 1930 Tariff Act that allowed prison labor to make products if the products could not be acquired in any other way. China and American companies had blown that loophole wide open and now it is closed. If we care about labor standards overseas, if we don’t want 1100 workers to die when their factory collapses upon them, if we don’t want children to be exposed to massive pollution at school from clothing produced for the American market, etc., we can make the choice to stop it. We simply don’t make that choice. We don’t even have a national conversation around it. Closing the prison labor loophole and banning products made by convicts is not the end of creating international labor standards that provide workers dignity. It’s just the very beginning.

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